Atlanta Hawks star Al Horford took one look at a 15-year-old named Karl-Anthony Towns on that day they first met and just knew a kid with such big hands and enormous feet was going someplace.
“Yeah,” Towns says now, “either the circus or the NBA.”
Ringling Bros. apparently must wait now because there’s something else calling a kid who once thought he might be destined for a baseball career as a pitcher or first baseman.
Horford met the newest member of his Dominican Republic national team during the 2011 NBA lockout, when Horford’s national team played a collection of former University of Kentucky stars — including John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Tayshaun Prince, Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins — during an exhibition game in Lexington, Ky.
Towns came by to say hello to his new teammates and the Dominican Republican team’s coach at the time, a guy named John Calipari.
“I’ll never forget,” Horford says now. “He came in with his dad, and he was already 6-8, 6-9. And he had like size 17 feet or something like that, and I said, ‘Oh my, this kid is huge.’ ”
Four years later, Horford is a three-time All-Star, and Towns is 13 games into a rookie season that already promises stardom and maybe even something more.
Before Towns had future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett in his ears and eyes daily as a professional, Horford guided Towns as a ninth-grader who came to him and his national team because of Towns’ physical gifts, drive and a mother from the Dominican Republic.
“It meant everything,” Towns, who was born and raised in New Jersey, said of a relationship that remains to this day. “I go from one great mentor to another, from Al Horford, an All-Star, to a Hall of Famer in KG. I was able to learn some moves, learn patience, learn how to be a pro. Al Horford, I don’t think I have to say it: Many people look at him and see the definition of a pro.”
Horford looked at Towns’ size at such a young age and saw potential. But just weeks into Towns’ NBA career, he didn’t see this coming on that day in August 2011. Towns didn’t play with the Dominican team that summer, but he did in Olympic qualifying in 2012 at age 16.
“You could see it, but I think he has exceeded expectations so quick,” said Horford, whose Hawks complete their season series with the Wolves on Wednesday at Target Center. “He has always been skilled, always been to shoot the ball really well, a really good passer, really understands the game. I kind of thought he had a chance, but it has really been impressive how far along he’s come, how fast. I think his mentality is what helps him most. He’s very poised, very mature.
“He’s going to keep developing. I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen.”
And if you listen to Towns talk, he’s something of an old soul in a 20-year-old’s body.
“He was a young kid, but at the same time he had a good blend of both,” Horford said. “He could be a real kid at times in his comments, but then he would say some stuff that sounds like a 35-year-old man speaking. That’s just the way he is.”
Mostly, Towns just remembers those conversations with the kind of man and player he wanted to become.
“I remember days we’d work out, and I remember days we’d just talk, have ice cream or something and just talk about life and basketball,” Towns said. “He had so much knowledge. I was learning to be so much of a better player, a better human being. I was just having a ball talking to him about everything I hopefully would run into in the NBA, and now we’re here.”
NBA short takes
McHale out of work but (if he wants) not for long
Former Timberwolves top executive and coach Kevin McHale had barely been fired Wednesday and certainly not paid yet the $12 million owed him for coaching just 11 games this season when former Boston teammate and longtime pal Danny Ainge offered him work with the Celtics.
McHale became the scapegoat for a Rockets team he led to the Western Conference finals last spring but which started this season just 4-7. He is owed that $12 million now through 2018.
“I’ve always tried to get Kevin to come work with me and work with my big guys,” Ainge told the Boston Herald. “We’ve got a spot for him. I know we could figure something out for him in some capacity.”
For now, McHale likely will accept the Rockets’ millions and maybe eventually return to some TV work before some NBA team calls with an attractive offer.
Might it be Glen Taylor and the Wolves? After Flip Saunders returned to the franchise that fired him, anything’s possible. Might it be Ainge and McHale’s beloved Celtics team?
“Maybe when the dust settles, I can get him out to teach the ‘Slippery Eel’ to Kelly and Sully and Amir,” Ainge said, referring to three of his players and one of McHale’s famed low-post moves from the old days.
Mitchell prepped for current job while watching like a hawk
Wolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell lives in Atlanta and did radio work following Hawks games while in between coaching jobs. He watched Mike Budenholzer arrive from San Antonio and turn the Hawks into a 60-victory team while winning Coach of the Year honors last season.
“I learned a lot just sitting up there watching those games, watching him and the things he did and how demanding he was,” Mitchell said. “It was a good perspective for me.”
Wolves’ WEEK AHEAD
Monday: 7 p.m. vs. Philadelphia
Wednesday: 7 p.m. vs. Atlanta
Friday: 9 p.m. at Sacramento
All games on FSN
Player to watch: Jahlil Okafor, 76ers
Wolves fans will never quibble with their team’s decision to draft Karl-Anthony Towns No. 1 overall, but this guy — taken third by the Sixers — is an offensive wonder and pretty good, too.
“Look, that kid is good. I mean, he’s really good.”
Orlando coach Scott Skiles after Wolves rookie Karl-Anthony Towns delivered a 21-point, 12-rebound, six-block game against his team on Wednesday.